University of Auckland Chamber Choir, Accord, Collegium Musicum Auckland
Cond. Karen Grylls, Robert Wiremu, James Tibbles
Sunday 7 June, St Mary’s Church, Parnell, Auckland
Review by Jonathan Mandeno
A tribute concert celebrating the 30 years of Dr Karen Grylls’ service to the choirs of the University of Auckland would never have been a mean affair. St Mary’s Church was soon packed with colleagues and students, from both past and present, as both audience and chorister. The Church itself was a fitting enough backdrop for the occasion, but sadly its rather dry acoustic did not compliment the singers nearly as well as the Cathedral next door would have. The programme reflected Karen’s decades of service with a formidably diverse and lengthy set of works, from early music to old choir favourites to a brand new piece.
Karen herself opened the evening leading a massed choir made up of the Chamber Choir and numerous alumni. The group’s diversity lead to a few unsure moments in entries and intonation in David Hamilton’s Didn’t It Rain. Tenor Lachlan Craig’s tone was on-point in its tenderness for the solo of Vaughan Williams’ The Turtle Dove, but he sometimes appeared to struggle with the peaks and valleys of the melody. However it was Karen’s sheer conducting charisma that brought the group together beautifully at other times. She led the fanned-out singers through the antiphony of Antonio Lotti’s Crucifixus with absolute confidence. The American folksong Shenandoah was lavishly executed with its rich harmonies and unisons, and Douglas Mews’ arrangement of Come All You Tonguers had all the salt and stridency of a proper rollicking shanty.
Robert Wiremu led the recently formed womens’ group Accord in two much lighter offerings. Good News! was a playful nod to the spiritual as a staple in choral repertoire. But the motor-mouthed lyrics of Stephen Sondheim’s Everybody Says Don’t sometimes got the better of the small group’s intonation and diction.
To finish the first half Collegium Musicum Auckland and director James Tibbles presented Monteverdi’s Beatus vir, after tuning the ensemble with some florid (and rather unnecessary) showboating on the harpsichord. Here the more exposed voices revealed the occasional weakness in the ensemble, and many of the middle registers were sadly lost to the acoustic. However the strong instrumental accompaniment and general energy brought some life back to the motet.
The most arresting moment of the evening was the premiere of Eve de Castro-Robinson’s host. As alluded to in the title, the singers approached the stage in dribs and drabs, convening as a host of birds would and gradually building up a thick sustained chord. Dense layers of circulating phonetics were based on Robert Wiremu’s Vowel-Clock teaching tool, and the effect was an enormously sensual texture of rippling vowels within the harmonic framework. The resulting vocal overtones were a scintillating cherry on top of the soundscape, leading the way into a vivid section of swooping glissandi and hisses. This grew with a wild sense of joie de vivre, rewarded fittingly, with a drawn-out breath to the end.
In between the music, the accolades to Karen from various colleagues flowed freely, as tribute concerts are wont to do. Warm and heartfelt as they were however, they did little to ease the passing of the already long programme, or the hardness of the church pews. But the greatest affirmation came when Karen herself took to the stage with her own Auckland Chamber Choir. Under Karen’s direction, the choir proved itself easily the strongest group of the night, tight and disciplined in their intonation and ensemble work.
Grete Pedersen’s arrangements of Norwegian folk hymns Jesus gjør meg stille and Kven kan seia ut den gleda were wonderfully imaginative. Female voices layered tiny fragments into a micropolyphonic texture over which sailed a lyrical baritone melody. Then guttural drones with vocal overtones alluded to the sound of throat-singing, all of which was strongly evoking of a dark, Nordic soundscape.
Choir favourite Through Coiled Stillness by Leonie Holmes proved its enduring place in the repertoire. Tightly coiled clusters slowly unwinding into expressive solos from soprano Morag Atchison and countertenor Stephen Diaz, rainsticks and bells completing the haunting atmosphere of dark and damp bushlands. The choir pulled off the richly thick harmonies of Morten Lauridsen’s Soneto de la noche with confidence. The Canadian song Frobisher Bay provided a beautifully sombre showcase of male voices, and the Finnish song Emoni Ennen mixed stark open intervals with joyfully vibrant full voices.
Representative of Karen’s commitment to Maori and Pasifika music, the concert ended simply and warmly with Samoan and Maori songs, the jubilant Si manu la’ititi contrasting with the more pensive Aio. A final standing ovation was a fitting salute to Karen’s priceless contributions to the University, and to New Zealand Choral music.